I thought before summer's over, it was time to "shoot the breeze" again and talk generally about a very important topic that affects all of us audio enthusiasts with what I hope are some practical suggestions from my own "journey" here at home.
The image above of a room set-up came from an article back in 1960 entitled Room Acoustics for Stereo by Abraham B. Cohen (Electronics World, January 1960 - make sure to also check out Part 2 here from February 1960). This was a time when many homes were still transitioning from the monophonic single-channel era to the bold new world of stereophonic "3D" playback with an opportunity to virtually experience an actual soundstage in the comforts of the living room. Those must have been exciting times, perhaps comparable in my lifetime to the late '90s with the release of AC3/DTS receivers providing discrete multichannel home theater.
As you can see from the pair of articles, already back in 1960, the groundwork had been laid out for what constitutes conditions for good "stereorama" sound. Best practice tips to achieve a sense of realism, the variables related to speaker placement in a room, angles to target for from the sweet-spot, distance between speakers and orientation like toe-in. Room characteristics like absorption characteristics of materials, reverberation time, room layout were discussed as well; all this informed by decades of professional recordings and studio design that came before.
Heck, Cohen even makes reference to "WAF", the stereotyped concept of the "wife acceptance factor" when it comes to acoustic treatments and aesthetic room layout ("... problems may prove difficult to overcome unless one finds some way of convincing the lady of the house that it is actually her idea to rearrange the furniture, or to hang a drape here or there, or to install acoustic tiles hither and yon"). BTW, over the years, running blind tests asking respondents about their gender, I noticed the ratio tends to be something like 99♂:1♀ in the audiophile world. I noticed that this was the same ratio quoted by Stereophile in their media kit for advertisers!
After all these decades with analogue playback supplanted by digital, the rise of computer-based audio, generations of tube and solid state amplifiers come and gone, physical media transitioning to streaming, etc... the statement "we must look to our living room for the last link in the 'realism' chain, with the aim of bringing it as close to good musical acoustic practice as possible" rings just as true today as it did in 1960. I suspect this is even more important now as the cost of high-fidelity gear has become more affordable and high-fidelity digital ever more accessible!
Apart from near-field and headphone listening and until the day we might have direct-insertion of auditory information into our brains, this statement will remain the most important and likely the most substantial limitation to the quality of audio reproduction we will experience.
Last year, in my "Good Enough" post on the relative contributions of audiophile components, I had already expressed that the "Room" and "Speakers" are really the primary sonic contributors to any system assuming of course that the other components are of reasonable fidelity. These days, DACs, amplifiers, preamps, receivers need not be expensive to be excellent. My feeling is that when we look at the cost of a good hi-fi system then, most of the money should therefore go into the speakers. While we might not think of it immediately, more likely than not, truly the most expensive of all "components" is the "real estate" / room where your system lives and where you enjoy the experience.
So, in the big picture, when we think about the major determinants of sound quality, remember:
1. The Speakers
This is of course obvious and represents a massive topic which I will not take on here other than to highlight its importance. The complexity of speakers is reflected in that the measurements of electronic components are so much easier to read. We can quite easily determine what "good", high-fidelity results should measure like when we look at a DAC or amplifier. Not so easy with speakers!
For example, whereas we can say it's good to have a DAC with low THD+N, we can't as easily look at a speaker frequency response and claim that a single flatter response is "best". We must look at what's happening off-axis, directivity, the relative contributions from various drivers, time domain performance, sensitivity, plus electrical load when matched to amps... All of which a level of magnitude more complex, in essence making DAC and amplifier measurements seemingly one-dimensional compared to how speakers interact with the mechanics of the room and ultimately our biological auditory (and tactile for bass vibration!) system.
Given the importance of speakers, when you are researching products, make sure to spend proportionately more time exploring prospective speakers than amplifiers or DACs.
2. The Room
I love reading and checking out the soundroom photos on threads like this (notice this is Part 15!). It's a nice reminder of all the variations out there in the real world.
Unless one is very well off and owns a mansion with multiple empty rooms, most of us can't just suddenly decide to repurpose a large space or move house simply for the sake of getting larger or better soundrooms! To do so would take massive effort and cost; which is why the soundroom is the most expensive and most "illiquid" audiophile component you'll ever own.
Like speakers, the room's acoustic character is a complex one to quantify especially when the room is not rectangular. Remember the contributions of room dimensions (size, ratios) and what's in the room; whether they diminish sound quality (eg. reflective glass, rattling shelves, table obstructing/reflecting sound between speaker and listener) or potentially improve sound reproduction quality (eg. absorptive fabric sofa, diffractive wall of books/LPs at a good location, thick absorptive rug, specific room treatments). The room will play a large part in what and how much you will be able to hear.
3. System Configuration
Then there are the choices we make in how we allow the System (particularly speakers) and Room interact. Where do we put the speakers? Where's the sweet spot to sit? How are the speakers pointed? Along which wall? How about the equipment rack orientation?
Unless you have a massive room, why bother with proportionately massive Wilson Audio Chronosonic speakers or that huge Göbel at RMAF 2019 if you can't spread them apart adequately or sit far enough back to appreciate a good sonic image? This is an example of the importance of matching speakers to room. Likewise, depending on where you place the system, one should analyze the need for room treatments and targeted "tweaks" to improve sound quality.
Clearly, there is an art and science to how we put those 3 components together. They interact and there are choices to be made to find a high quality solution - likely there will be multiple good solutions.
Reflections on my own room and set-up...All this is fine and good in theory of course! In the spirit of "show, don't tell", let's get down to business and let me show you what I've done here at home as an illustration. Note I'm not suggesting that what I do is "best". In fact, I can think of a few things more to improve the system but I can say that this has helped my sound quality evolve and at least as of August 2020, it sounds very good and better than August 2019.
Unless one is building the house and has an opportunity to create the "dream soundroom" (see J. Gordon Holt's 1983 article), most of us will have to make due with what we have. For me, I have a basement room that was made for AV purposes when the house was built around 2007 and then renovated in 2013. The floor is concrete with dense engineered hardwood on top. When seated, the left and front walls are drywall over concrete, other walls are drywall with wood frame construction as with most houses in this neighborhood. The rear wall is a bit thicker and I noticed an extra layer of plywood was added behind the drywall and the adjacent room when I had a look during the 2013 renovation. Windows are small, double pane for insulation, and located higher up in the room so they are not problematic reflective surfaces at the listening height. Much of this helps reduce ambient noise getting in.
Ambient background noise is around 30dB SPL in the afternoons and will get lower in the late evenings. Since it's a detached house, there are no worries about neighbours knocking on the door with the subs rocking and rolling. I live on a street corner with reduced road traffic and is part of the city's bicycle infrastructure which helps lower street noise substantially and is very quiet at night. Actually, since there's a park across the street, often at night I hear more coyotes than humans! It's essential that the soundroom be as a silent as possible - from which sonic subtleties can arise of course.
Let's now talk about a few general steps that I've considered in setting up my room plus specific details...
1. There are numerous "How To" set-up instructions out there to review. Consider them as guidelines, no need for rigid rules.
This Dynaudio "Master Class" video provides a great start with some discussion of the golden ratio and others. They also have a room correction video which I think would have been much more powerful with diagrams.
While a number of years old, in less than 15 minutes, Ethan Winer covers quite a lot although I suspect with >30 bass traps in his room, this will surpass multiple WAF/esthetic thresholds for most of us! He also has a 2018 update of his room. I suspect Ethan's choice of electronics gear might be shocking for audiophiles used to much much more fancy and expensive products! This is what it looks like when $$$ are put into room treatments rather than the electronics and I certainly cannot fault him for that logical decision. Check out the website for more.
This short C|Net article from Tom Davenport "How to position your speakers perfectly" is also practical with ideas and general guidelines for speaker-to-wall distancing though the illustrations are mainly for a desktop system.
For much more details, consider buying Vincent Verdult's book "Optimal Audio and Video Reproduction at Home" (reviewed back in April) where he devotes chapters on this and numerous related topics with practical suggestions.
Within the online audiophile world, some of the specific guides for speaker set-up can be found at Audio Physic, Cardas Room Setup, and Wilson's WASP. One of the most detailed is The Audio Beat guide which is nice as it makes suggestions in conjunction with the use of LEDR test signals. Good to review this material to capture the common themes and borrow for your own implementation.
Based on the general guidelines, also check out the Speaker Placement Calculator as a useful starting point to consider by plugging in your own room dimensions.
2. Visualize how you want the system to be generally oriented.
While it's true that experimentation and time will eventually lead to an optimal set-up, in reality let's face it, we don't have unlimited time to fiddle with this and need to get to music enjoyment which is the main purpose! For most rooms, when we walk in and look at where the door is located, where the windows are, I think we already have a good sense of what looks "right" based on some common sense and the idea of symmetry. No matter how good the ultimate layout might sound for any specific room, it still has to be practical and comfortable, otherwise you probably wouldn't enjoy spending time in there!
For my soundroom, there was no doubt that the system was going to look something like this as a logical use of space for 2-channel and home theater playback:
While I can choose what went into the room like the long sofa, absorption panels, large thick carpet, shooting this picture from the doorway, my TV, equipment rack, and speakers were destined to be in that tapered far end. If I didn't do that the orientation would look highly asymmetrical. If I were to reverse the orientation and have the speakers near the door where I'm standing, I'd have to be careful to make sure the door doesn't swing into the speaker not to mention how cumbersome it would be to walk into the room and have a speaker sticking out.
Notice bits of tape at the front which I would use to mark the midline and final speaker positions. A good locking tape measure is an essential tool for the job. Normally, I have a padded coffee table / ottoman placed in front of the sofa for drinks. I've pushed this out of the way - you can see the edge of it at the bottom right of the image.
A tip: 3M Transpore medical tape is excellent for this purpose. It's easy to tear, hangs on to smooth surfaces well and not difficult to remove.
3. Consider sketching out a floor plan to help with layout. I typically settle on a "1/3 + 1/5" orientation in my rooms for speaker placement and prime listening position.
Over the years, I have had at least 5 different stereo systems at home and rental places I've lived in from college to now. In general, if I were to offer a basic rule of thumb for what has worked for me as a start, it would be simply "Aim the speakers down the long axis, and use 1/3 + 1/5 positioning".
What does this mean?
Here's a floor plan that was sketched out a few months back using Online Room Planner with the guideline overlaid.
Remember the key is to try to keep the room as symmetrical as we can by considering where the midline would be if one were sitting in the eventual "sweet spot". I would have the speakers laid out along the shorter wall, pointed down the longer axis. Since life is rarely perfect, even if slightly asymmetrical as in this room, imagine if this were rectangular as per the light blue filled area. I like the "rule of thirds" idea with the speakers at approximately the front 1/3 boundary from the wall, and the sitting position at the imaginary back 1/3 boundary (the late Harry Pearson advocated for this sensible start point). Distance between the speakers and lateral walls would be about 1/5th of the width using this basic guideline.
From there I start experimenting. As you can already see in my floor plan above, where I ended up putting the sofa and speakers are actually not exactly at the 1/3 boundaries. Remember, this isn't gospel, it's only a guideline. :-)
For full-range speakers, typically avoid putting them too close to the front wall. Likewise, make sure to have space behind the sitting position rather than against a back wall to avoid comb filtering that will muddy the sound; I've seen too many audiophiles sit right against the back wall which is never a good thing. The tapered front wall in my room allows my 75" TV to be set further back, reducing sonic reflections off that large surface. The rear LP rack (and storage) provides a bit of diffusion behind the sofa. If I didn't have that, I would consider getting some quadratic diffusors like these or maybe some inexpensive combined absorber/diffusors for the back wall. These treatments might be good up front if I didn't have the TV there.
So then, here's the "final" floor plan annotated with the items in the room along with some distances and angle between listening position and the speakers:
You can see that I have a couple of GIK Acoustics absorptive panels at the 1st reflection points on each side (discussed / measured a few years back). Of course make sure there are no obstructions between the loudspeakers to listener (especially midrange and tweeter).
Here's a view from the other side of the room:
Notice that I have built-in glass cabinets on that right wall which is why naturally I had to apply some absorption at the first reflection point to my listening "sweet spot". A practical way to find the reflection point is to have someone like your wife/kid/friend move a parallel oriented mirror across the side as you look for the speaker reflection while seated at the sweet spot.
For completeness, here's a look into the back of the room where the LP storage and surround speakers (Paradigm Studio 80 v.3 and Atmos height channels) live:
Notice that this picture was taken with the MiniDSP UMIK-1 microphone set up for room measurements which we will discuss later. Sure, you could do things like sub calibration "by ear", but IMO a measurement microphone is an essential tool that allows you to be more precise and complete across frequencies especially when you're trying to clean up the bass without wasting too much time!
As you can see, the sofa is wider than shown on the floor plan image.
4. Now get the speakers and seating in place as per your envisioned floor plan and start experimenting with the sound - focus first on the front speakers to optimize imaging.
In principle, remember to try to aim for an equilateral triangle which means a 60° angle at the sweet spot between your 2 speakers (or 30° towards each speaker). This is what determines the potential width of your soundstage. Remember to use some basic trigonometry to calculate this (tan=opposite/adjacent is your friend) with just some measurements of the distance between speakers and distance from listening position to that imaginary plane between the speakers.
Notice that for my room, I settled on a 50° angle from listening position to speakers. This came about practically because I wanted the seating position a little further back than an "ideal" 60° angle as I didn't want to sit too close to the TV when watching a movie with the family. Also, there was some trial-and-error experimenting with inter-speaker distance to make sure the central phantom image sounded robust while maintaining wide enough soundstage. An excessively wide inter-speaker distance might leave the centre image weak. I could always lean a bit forward to get closer to the 60° angle if I need to when listening intently.
In concert with inter-speaker distance and the angle with the listening position is amount of "toe-in" to apply for each speaker. Again, there's going to be some experimentation needed. Some audiophiles recommend pointing the speakers at an imaginary point slightly behind the listening position. Each speaker will be a bit different due to off-axis radiation patterns. Over the years, I've found that if the speakers-to-listening-position shape is close to an equilateral triangle, 10° toe-in has worked well for me. I use an electronic protractor to measure this so that both speakers are angled precisely - as you can see with curved speakers like my Paradigm Signature S8's, some estimated "eye-balling" required:
|10° toe-in. Convenient to have flooring with parallel lines for reference!|
You might be wondering at this point - "What did you use to fine-tune inter-speaker distance, toe-in, and listener position with?"
Well, you can use the LEDR signals as noted above with the Audio Beat guide. But here's also a simple 3-track test signal I've been using that gets the "fundamentals" done for me:
I know John Atkinson has talked about the use of mono pink noise (-3dB/octave noise) as a way to make sure that the speaker placement and room acoustics are balanced in Stereophile. What I do is similar. Within the package above, you'll see 3 tracks.
I will turn off my sub(s) and any DSP when I play the first 2 test tracks. The reason is I just want to optimize the position of the two speakers without any fancy processing or other sound sources (like the sub) in play.
Track 1 "Dual Mono Pink [Focused] - 20s Fade In and Out" is a mono pink noise that should sound like it's coming straight from the phantom center between your main speakers. Notice that it fades in over 20 seconds, stays at a constant volume for about 50 seconds, then fades out again. Check that during the fades, the image remains centered and stable ("focused"). Spatial instability of the center image would be the result of asymmetry whether of the room or system/speaker issues. Likewise, the pink noise tonality should not change during the fades.
As you experiment with inter-speaker width, make sure the centered sound remains strong. As you toe-in, check that the focus improves into as narrow a central image as possible. Remember that this is a full spectrum pink tone (with proportionally attenuated high frequencies) so don't go nuts with expecting a "razor thin" center image; an identifiably narrow sound located dead center, stable through the fades is what we're after.
Track 2 "Inverse Polarity Pink [Diffused] - 20s Fade In and Out" is a similar mono pink noise but the channels will be inverted in relation to each other. What this results in is a sound that appears to be coming from behind my head when I have my system "dialed in". Again, it should sound centered and relatively narrow in width as well; as if coming from my back wall.
5. Let's check for extraneous vibrations / rattling.
As for Track 3 "Bass Sweep 10-500Hz 30s", because I have quite a bit of glass cabinetry in my sound room, I want to make sure bass frequencies do not excite the glass panels or rattle the shelves (it can be quite annoying!). I haven't seen many people talk about this but it is one of the most common problems I've had over the years whether at this place or in previous homes, so I've always made sure to check for this when setting up.
Basically the 3rd track is a 30 second sweep from 10Hz to 500Hz I'll play at around 85dB SPL usually with the subwoofers on (an SPL meter is another tool of the trade). Listen for any unusual noise emanating from your room and identify where it might be coming from.
For me, in practice, this helped identify a "buzzing" at around 80Hz from the glass cabinet behind my right speaker. Since I did not want to remove the cabinet door, for years I've done other things but recently decided on a simple solution by applying some reasonably stiff polyester fiber acoustic panels. I got some inexpensive black 16"x12" BXI Sound Absorber mounted over the glass with double-sided Scotch mounting tape. This is strong enough to hold the panels in place but easy enough to remove without permanently causing any damage if I decide to later.
|Some double-sided tape stuck on.|
With the daylight angle above, you can see the acoustic panels placed over the glass. It does the job - no more rattling and also this will improve clarity with less comb filtering as the reflected sound from the right speaker is significantly reduced. Aesthetically while not the prettiest solution, it's not noticeable or distracting at night when I watch movies or listen to my music (wife and kids haven't even mentioned it). I have since moved that old CD rack away from the right speaker as well.
One more thing, Blu Tack (and similar putty) is your friend to reduce cabinet vibrations between the door and frame:
Gratuitous glob of Blu Tack applied, but it works. ;-)
I'll get close to the cabinets and listen for any subtle noises while playing Track 3 at a good volume (~85dB SPL) with my subs active to find out where to apply the Tack. Another tweak that may help is to adjust the concealed hinges to have the cabinet door pushed a little further out if the vibration is knocking the door against the corner along the hinges. This is typically done by turning that deeper eccentric screw where I have the red arrow.
6. "Dial in" the subwoofer(s) now for best bass frequency response.
Now that the front speakers are placed and we should hear good imaging, and bass-induced rattling dealt with, it's time to integrate the subwoofers if you have some. If you don't have a sub, then life is easier. ;-)
There are guides online for placement of subs like this, or this, or this video. With my systems over the years, as in Point 2 above, there really aren't that many places in a room one might want to put a large sub; general placement might just be obvious.
Remember three basic principles highly relevant for bass frequencies:
I. Frequency anomalies are easily audible - more so than time-domain performance. Get the frequencies as smooth as you can.
II. Human ears have difficulty with low-frequency sound localization (<80Hz) primarily due to the long wavelengths resulting in minimal inter-aural difference. For example, the speed of sound is 1100ft/s (~340m/s), so an 80Hz tone has 13.75' (~4.25m) wavelength. Therefore there's little inter-aural phase difference when we consider that the distance between the ears is typically only <9" (<23cm). Feel free to place the subwoofer(s) wherever you like so long as the crossover point is low (~80Hz or less).
III. Below the Schroeder transition frequency, room-speaker interactions are prominent however in small rooms! So while we are generally free to place the subs wherever we want, remember that in a small room, "room modes" will determine what is the best location in any given space. "REW Room Sim" as I showed previously can be a useful tool to help hone in on what might be "better" placement.Make sure to work with your subwoofer's calibration system if it has one (many subs like my Paradigm SUB1 has a DSP built-in as discussed). I wrote recently about using dual subs which did require a bit of experimentation with a measurement microphone to tweak placement, crossover frequency, phase, and volume for smoothest results (which I've since refined to improve the frequencies below 30Hz). I honestly would find it very difficult to tune a subwoofer well without a measurement microphone (yes, the UMIK-1 is highly recommended)!
At this point with my set-up, with subwoofer(s) integrated, the system sounds pretty good already. With a 1kHz tone set at ~85dB SPL for volume, here's the frequency response in my room with left and right channels:
As shown, there's a typical 15-20dB fluctuation in frequency response in the bass frequencies which you'll see in most small rooms unless highly treated. The measurement was done in REW and you can play with other functions in the excellent software. For example, here's a peek at the "RT60 Decay" function (right channel shown):
That's the decay curve at 500Hz up top. My room clearly isn't in any way an anechoic chamber or highly treated space with the rather "lively" 500Hz RT60 <0.45s - you would see a much steeper curve with more absorption in the room.
We'll have another look at RT60 again below with Acourate.
7. Finally, implement DSP room correction.
As discussed over the years (eg. Acourate filter creation procedure last year), the final step I perform is to measure the room at the sweet spot to create correction FIR filter(s). This really works well for me and I have grown to appreciate the more "neutral" sound in the process.
Here's the microphone in place for AudioVero's Acourate log sweep recording. Using the RME ADI-2 Pro FS R Black Edition as DAC this time:
Here's the "uncorrected" frequency response with some psychoacoustic smoothing applied within Acourate with my soundroom door closed:
Again, no surprise to see a 15dB fluctuation below the Schroeder transition. When adjusting my subs, I purposely tipped the low frequencies higher in volume but not to crazy elevated levels (as listeners we tend to prefer more bass anyway). Remember that it's better to perform EQ with volume attenuation since boosting speaker-boundary nulls is generally unsatisfactory (or even possible).
When it comes to the desired target frequency response, remember that most listeners (myself included) do not prefer a perfectly flat response (have a look at this slide set from Sean Olive in 2009 particularly slide 25 based on Harman research).
I've created various "house curve" options for DSP playback through Roon. Using the "spectral tilt" idea, this time I created "Flat to 20kHz", -3dB, -6dB, and -9dB variants with the slope starting from 500Hz and down by those dB amounts into 24kHz as the target. Here's what the "-6dB Tilt" target curve looks like using Acourate:
After fiddling with some filter creation parameters, here's the final frequency response modeled in Acourate at the listening sweet spot with the "-6dB Tilt" variant which I use mostly:
By now, certainly on this blog you would have seen various graphs like this demonstrating the power of software like Acourate. Frequency response is now within a <5dB range following the target curve at the main listening position. Over the years, I have measured the results within +/-6" laterally and front-to-back from the "sweet spot" to confirm that the frequency response actually does not change that much so there's no need to be concerned that one has to listen as if your head were stuck in a vise!
Here are the various DSP "Tilt" target frequency response curves I can select through Roon presets:
Roon selection through the preset system:
Notice that I measured the room twice, once with door closed then again with it open. Each one with FLAT/-3dB/-6dB/-9dB filters generated, plus I have the "- NO DSP -" option of course. Whether the door is open or closed makes a difference as you might expect for the frequency response, especially for the right channel closest to the doorway.
Given that the speakers have typical analogue crossovers, 2 subs of different brands placed at 2 locations, I cannot expect "perfect" time-domain performance! So long as time domain performance post-correction has improved, I'd be happy... Here are pre- and post-DSP step responses:
Notice in the uncorrected step response how temporally delayed the two subwoofers are from the main speaker. The little Polk PSW111 ("Subwoofer 2" in the floor plan) is closer to the listening position than the much more powerful Paradigm SUB1 ("Subwoofer 1") which is located in the front left corner producing the lowest bass. Frequencies emanating from the various speakers are now better "aligned" to arrive at about the same time for right and left signals at the prime listening position. Again remember, low frequencies are difficult for the ears to localize so while objectively improved time-domain alignment is good to have, the effect with bass frequencies is very subtle.
Every discussion I've seen on time-domain performance (like this) suggests that we should not obsess too much over it. I certainly would put good frequency response ahead of time-domain performance. Whereas frequency anomalies can be easily heard, time-domain issues (phase shifts, group delays) are not as well resolved by human ears especially given the complexity of music playback.
Finally, let's make sure the listening room isn't overly reverberant. Acourate can do the RT60 calculation for us:
Looks reasonable with RT60 generally <0.5s across frequencies. This is within the tolerances for a DIN 18041 Music space ("music room with active musical performing and singing") of my soundroom's size. Again, this is far from a "dead" sounding room.
If you're interested in standards and specific parameters like RT60 for listening rooms, check out this interesting paper with a table of IEC, ITU-R, EBU, AES, and N-12 recommendations.
8. Now go listen to some music!
Having done all that... Now I grab a beer on a hot summer evening, punch up the playlist of "standard" songs I know well and have a listen. Here are a few example tracks and what I listen for particularly:
- Boris Blank's "The Time Tunnel" (Electrified) with its droning lows - I make sure the sound doesn't excite any glass resonances or cabinets rattling in my room. Soundstage should be nice and wide enveloping you with its "atmosphere". Tons of detail in this clean-sounding synthetic track!
- Rebecca Pidgeon's "Spanish Harlem" (The Raven) maintains a smooth bass line. See here for recent discussion of the notes themselves by Mitch Barnett.
- Deadmau5's "Whispers (Remix)" (The Dali CD, Volume 3) sounds "surround" with the female vocals washing over my head and around the sides into the back of the room when she whispers "I know your secrets". Seductively creepy. Some of the beats have a headphone-like effect as if inside the head. On the same CD is "Moonlight on Spring River". The close-mic'ed Chinese pipa playing by Zhao Cong should sound very clean with precise attacks and you should hear pinpoint soundstage precision for each note. New Age meets Asian vocals and ethereal low bass featured on this track as well.
- Pink Floyd's "Time" (Dark Side...) sounds like I have blaring alarms and chimes ringing around me throughout the room. Each clock/alarm will have its precise place in the soundstage, you should hear some of the ringing as if coming from far corners and behind the head as well.
- James Taylor's "Gaia" (Hourglass) the male voice should sound "present" in the room front and center, with kick ass dynamic percussion waking up the subs and shaking the room at around 4:10. I'm not a big fan of Taylor's hypernasal vocals, but they are distinctive and it should sound that way with the system calibrated.
- Jennifer Warnes' "Ballad of the Runaway Horse" (Famous Blue Raincoat) sounding like Jennifer is singing in my room with a wide, spacious, natural atmosphere with pinpoint positioning of elements like the cricket chirps, songbird singing and subtle effects particularly in the right front soundfield.
- Dave's True Story's "Like A Rock" (Dave's True Story) is another great track to listen for bass smoothness... Make sure no nulls swallowing up any of the notes at the sweet spot! Also a great track to just listen to the "microdynamics" and copious details in those bass plucks. A good system sounds "fast", and be able to easily keep the instruments and voice separated in space, creating the impression of "air" around each instrument/voice.
- Roger Waters' "The Ballad of Bill Hubbard" (Amused To Death) is a great demo of QSound which processes stereo amplitude and phase to enhance the 3D illusion. You should hear a dog barking behind your head at the start, TV channels switching in the distance to the left, electric guitar right in front of you, animal growling, etc... Later tracks like "Too Much Rope" will have a wolf howling in the distance, a horse-drawn carriage travel from front left to rear right across your listening room, a car (Ferrari?) zooming by, and the like. Achieving both accurate frequency and time domain performance will accentuate the believability and clarity of this soundscape.
- Let's end off here with some orchestral music. Telarc's "1812" is a classic for testing dynamic range whether the original recording or the 2001 DSD re-recording. At a reference listening level, do the canon explosions sound clean without nasty distortions from the sound system or room? I've long enjoyed Reference Recording's "The Firebird Suite" (Stravinsky: The Song Of The Nightingale...) and recently their Tchaikovsky No. 4 live performance. Listen to the orchestra... Can you make out the layout of the instruments in the symphony? Does the percussion sound like it's further back? Can you hear the violins in the front and to the left with the cellos more to the right? Can you hear the brass instruments behind the woodwinds, both located down the middle?
If you're a headphone listener, notice that songs with strong 3D positional elements like the Roger Waters' QSound or Deadmau5's "Whispers" will not be rendered with the soundstage as heard with speakers (you can try to emulate the speaker effect with DSP crossfeed or more complex algorithms like RedScape). While headphones have strengths like convenience, portability, relative cost, excellent resolution and freedom from room effects, fantastic with binaural recordings, most of the time I crave the soundstage of a properly set-up speaker system in a good room. :-)
Concluding thoughts...There you have it folks, I'm very thankful to have a room to call my own - the "man cave" as it were to tweak and tune as I please. There are other things I still could/would do in the future. The most obvious one is to replace the leather sofa which itself is a rather reflective surface; at least the headrest isn't high which would have created even more reflections although that would be more comfortable. The problem is that when the family comes down to listen, we're typically watching a movie enjoying popcorn and snacks... It's nice to be sitting close together and the leather is easy to clean when you have kids with oily buttery fingers! ;-) For now, placing a thick blanket across the leather headrest will help dampen reflections and improve clarity.
Even though most of the time I'm listening as a solitary audiophile, having a comfortable, inviting space for the family is important. Also, when I have friends come over, this quiet room is a nice place to chat and provides I think a "sanctuary" of sorts from the noises and distractions of the outside world. It's all a balance of science, art, creature comforts, and even social considerations, right?
Recently, I read Jim Austin's editorial on audio rooms and I suppose I understand what he means by taking the route of acceptance that no room is perfect. I'm not sure I would be so open to the idea of "seeking" an "authentic room" if it means somehow purposely falling in love with a space that adds evident coloration to the sound though. Let's be honest, this kind of thinking can also be defensive in that he's simply "settling" for what he has. Sure, we should always find adequate contentment in what we have. However, let's not turn contentment into complacency (helplessness?) if there are still ways to move forward and improve what I believe is literally a foundational "component" in the sound system! Aren't "hi-end" $10,000 DACs, $30,000 LP playback, and $75,000 speakers difficult to assess if basic room characteristics are poor with high ambient noise level, the room echoes, frequency response exaggerated, or a skewed soundstage? Just because a room is "authentic" is meaningless if it isn't at least supportive of good fidelity which isn't just about extreme anomalies like "a big honkin' bass mode at 60Hz or 80Hz"! "The perfect is the enemy of the good, the creative, the spontaneous, the real" sounds all philosophical and stuff but again meaningless in that nobody I know is expecting perfection. Anyhow, I would love to learn how Mr. Austin optimized his room with concrete suggestions and ideas rather than just vague opinions without any real-world context. [Let's just ignore whatever he's trying to say about multichannel for the time being.]
I mentioned above the interesting thread showing pictures of rooms and equipment. Great to see forum readers sharing! Since mainstream subjective-only audio reviewer opinions do carry weight for (some) hobbyists, I've often wondered about the rooms that these reviewers use for listening. After all, by now we've seen countless subjective reviewers claiming that (even digital) cables make a difference, "jitter" from digital equipment is audible, that "noise" level can change when listening to different ethernet switches, claims that there are differences between lossless FLAC vs. uncompressed WAV files... If true, these would be very subtle effects and the audiophile must have set up his/her room with utmost attention to detail! Yet how many reviewers actually talk about their soundroom or show us the lengths they've gone through to achieve high quality playback?
I think one of the most interesting series of articles I've read on this is regarding Chris Connaker's "New Listening Room" (Part 1 in 2018, Part 2 in 2019). Fantastic exposé on the lengths he went through with clearly a highly challenging space and the results achieved! I wish more reviewers are as transparent.
2017 was an interesting year for Stereophile as they had videos and write-ups of their reviewers' homes and listening spaces. Jason Victor Serinus' garage conversion in 2017 is good reading and looks like a nice listening space. The video of his room/system looks good but shows us however that he has a certain kind of "faith", "world view" that leads to a desire for Synergistic, Bybee, and SteinMusic products. Videos like Michael Fremer's room/work space in 2017 showed a rather cluttered place - however there was so much breathless talk about cables, claims, personal stories, and gear (including yucky MQA & Synergistic Research testimony) that the camera didn't bother to pan around to show us the listening seat facing those Wilson speakers in that small space beside the boiler room! The Herb Reichert video doesn't even show where he sits or the size of the room either but takes pains to show some kind of artistry, the neighborhood vegetation patch, and feral cats. Likewise the late Art Dudley's video focused so much on the hardware and his bunnies with not even a quick view of that listening room either! How strange. Sure, it's nice to be "artistic" to show the personalities and quirks, but come on... This is about audio, right? Shouldn't we also talk a little about the qualities of the listening room itself since the camera is right there!? I see that Art had an article with a picture of his new place in late 2017 at least.
Elsewhere, Steve Guttenberg talks about speaker placement and agrees that it's all "time well spent" but we don't see what his listening space looks like either or what that "spent time" went into. His relatively short artsy Stereophile video likewise is all about selling hardware apparently again with no regard for the space itself or how those speakers were oriented in the room!
"Audio evangelist" Hans Beekhuyzen even has two videos totaling almost 30 minutes (part 1, part 2) on his "reference systems" but I didn't see a single shot of what the listening rooms look like or discussion of key points about size, ambient noise, room treatments, much less characteristics like frequency response and room reverb he's listening in! Other than for decoration, why does he have all those instruments sitting behind him? Beekhuyzen seems more intent on just introducing products like his network system, NAS drives, streamers, linear power supplies as if these things are all that important (based on typical audiophile boogeymen like "noise" and "jitter" of course). I bet that most people who ask about the "reference system" probably have in mind the question of what the room plus components look like, not just the electronics dissociated from physical space. One cannot help but wonder if this implies something negative about the room(s) if there is reticence to just show us a picture and discuss the real-life challenges of home listening spaces. Fascinating BTW that he keeps insisting that he's "independent thus trustworthy" at the end of videos. Are those things correlated as suggested by the adverb "thus"? I don't think so considering his strange affinity to the nonsensical hype and incorrect advocacy for MQA among other questionable claims.
I dunno about you, but I find myself feeling very unsatisfied watching stuff like this over the years. Surely there must be more that can be discussed, right?
In summary, I hope the room discussions above inspired interest and provided some ideas about optimizing room set-up. I believe that inadequate attention has been paid to this important matter by the media among audiophile writers and reviewers. I know, room treatments aren't sexy and there's little advertising revenue to be had.
Considering that most reviewers in print and online are of the "purely subjective" variety, I believe rooms and set-up are particularly important since the sound quality opinions can only be as good as room conditions allow. Objective measurements need to be discussed in the context of procedural techniques, software and hardware used; so too subjective reviews require context including who the person is (passing "Golden Ear" certification of some sort would improve credibility as well) and under what conditions the evaluations are being done.
Subjective-only reviews commonly have an "Associated Equipment" section that lists everything from DACs, to amps, to snake oil cables, to speaker footers, floor risers, and even bizarre room treatment products! Yet absence of the listening room's characteristics being mentioned renders such a list woefully incomplete. To have more of a focus on the room, discuss decisions made about how the 2 channels were arranged, whether the room is supportive of accurate reproduction, and thoughtful consideration of limitations would I think give readers/viewers a greater sense of confidence that the reviewer truly cares about sound quality; not just an obsession on brand names, collecting hardware (or LPs in the case of Fremer), and basically doing a sales job on hardware products.
While I believe that professional reviews of products is always incomplete without objective measurements, it would be nice to see purely subjective reviewers demonstrating that they're trying to elevate the standard of their listening experience for those reading/watching.
Since technology continues to advance and we can objectively see improvements in both frequency and time-domain performance of all kinds of gear, what Abraham B. Cohen said in early 1960 is ever more important: "we must look to our living room for the last link in the 'realism' chain". I concur.
Oh my, how fast the month of August and summer is flying by. Stay safe and have fun with your soundroom, audiophiles. Wishing you fantastic sonic adventures...
PS: When we look around at hi-end audio company product shots, notice how often we see promotional pictures that look like this: